Choosing a BBQ Smoker

There are a few things to consider when choosing a BBQ Smoker. I’ll go into detail on each of them to help you make an informed decision.

On the market, there are backyard smokers and professional & competition smokers. This guide is to help you select a backyard smoker.


Smokers come in all sizes so how do you determine what size you need? You need to figure out how much you want to smoke at one time. The biggest isn’t necessarily the best. If you are only going to smoke a couple racks of ribs or a brisket, you probably don’t need a huge, or even average sized smoker. It is just as important to not sell yourself short. You need to strike a balance capacity and smoke consumption efficiency.

Choose a smoker that gives you enough room for all your foods to have air space on all sides. This allows the smoke to evenly penetrate the meat. On the other hand, you don’t want a smoker that’s so big you need a whole tree to produce enough smoke to be effective.

Horizontal VS Vertical

The difference between a horizontal and vertical smoker is where the heat and smoke source is in relation to the cooking chamber.

A horizontal smoker has a smoke chamber mounted on the side of the cooking chamber. Usually, this chamber is mounted a few inches lower than the cooking chamber. This is known as an offset smoke chamber. The benefit to a horizontal smoker is the temperature in the cooking chamber remains lower to help make authentic barbecue, which is cooked slowly with a low temperature. Horizontal smokers are generally only available as charcoal and hardwood models.

A vertical smoker has the heat and smoke source directly below the cooking area. The heat source is usually in the same chamber with the food. Because the heat is directly below the food, it tends to cook faster. This is great for some foods but not necessarily great for others. It is easier to control the temperature inside gas and electric models than charcoal vertical smokers.

There tend to be more sizes and models available for gas and electric vertical smokers than horizontal. They are also usually easier to find in stores.

Charcoal VS Gas VS Electric

Charcoal/hardwood smokers are the most authentic. The smoke comes directly from the combustion of the fuel. These smokers don’t require and special hook-ups and can be used in any safe location.

Gas smokers burn propane or natural gas. This means they also have a live fire. The heat produced by the flame heats wood chips in a tray, which gives off the smoke. These smokers require a propane tank or a permanent natural gas hook-up. Propane models are transportable but may be bulkier than the charcoal model. Most natural gas models are not very mobile because they are plumbed into your houses gas line.

Electric smokers have a heating element much like an electric oven. This element heats wood shavings, sawdust, or wood biscuits to give off the smoke. These models are usable wherever they is an outlet. (always use your smoker outdoors)

Attainable Temperature Range

It is important to be able to keep a consistent temperature inside your cooking chamber. You don’t generally need a smoker that gets up to 500 degrees. Most hot smoking is done between 200 and 350 degrees. This is the appropriate method for most smoking. Cold smoking is done below 200 degrees. This is used when smoking bacon, fish, and cheese, for example. Almost all smokers are capable is hot smoking. Not all smokers are capable of cold smoking. Chances are, you’ll need an electric smoker for cold smoking. Choose the right model for your application.

Smoke Producing Media

Wood chunks are the largest media readily available in stores. They are pieces of hardwood generally no smaller than 2 inches in diameter. They burn slowly and are generally used in charcoal smokers.

Wood chips are generally no smaller than 3/4 of an inch in diameter and usually no more than 1/4 of an inch thick. They are a good choice for most gas smokers and can also be used in charcoal smokers. It is easier to find a larger selection of hardwoods in the form of wood chips than the other forms.

Wood shreds / sawdust are very small pieces of hardwood. They are usually used in electric smokers. Because of their high ratio of surface area to size, they produce smoke at a lower temperature which allows for cold smoking.

Wood biscuits are compressed wood shreds in the form of a disk. These biscuits are usually about 2 inches in diameter and about 1/2 of an inch thick. These for for use in smokers designed to accept them. These smokers are usually electric and some have an automatic feed system that advances a new biscuit at set intervals so you don’t have to replenish the media yourself. Smokers that use wood biscuits are the least labor intensive but are also usually more expensive.

Wood pellets are a lot like wood biscuits. They are made of hardwood sawdust that is compressed into pellets. These pellets get put in a hopper and are fed automatically into the igniter of the smoker to generate smoke. Smokers that use wood pellets truly are set it and forget it units. They are also generally quite costly.

There are many other things that can be used to produce smoke. One example is old corn cobs. They give a distinctive flavor to the meat.

There are several decisions to make when choosing a barbecue smoker, but they all come down to your preference. There are no wrong answers, just answers that are customized for your unique situation.

Print Friendly

About Raun Lauterbach

Optimistic realist, life enthusiast, outdoor cook, Midwest traveler, husband, father... Follow me: Twitter | Facebook | Get updates in your email
This entry was posted in Outdoor Cooking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Anonymous

    Not all vertical smokers have the heat source directly below the food. There are a number of verticals that also have offset fireboxes.